Monday, March 19, 2007

Spirit of Bluegrass Music Fest at Suwannee Music Park

We arrived early on Wednesday afternoon at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, about four miles north of Live Oak, FL to discover a large operation prepared to handle crowds of music lovers, appropriate for a Music Park that hosts a range of events. We’ve come for the Spirit of Bluegrass Music Fest this weekend and then the Suwannee Springfest next. It’ll be interesting to see how these two festivals, the first a bluegrass festival and the second an Americana festival differ and how they fit for us. We find our camping site, which is just at the back of the main stage performance area and permits a limited view, but good sound. If we get tired, we can listen from home. The amphitheater is tiered with railroad ties and covered with fallen oak leaves, a characteristic of anywhere there are live oak trees providing good shade for hot days and some shelter from possible rain.

A good bluegrass festival presents a mixture of the tried and true, the up and coming, and national headliners. It also offers a mix of traditional and progressive styles of music. By that measure, Spirit of Bluegrass met the goal.. Promoter Don Miller and artist contact and promotion man Ernie Evans have hired a significant range of bands for the weekend. A cynical fan might suggest that the economics of the business make such a mixture a necessity, but organizing this way insures the future of the music by showcasing bands for the future as well as satisfying the desires of fans to hear and see established bands.

The program opens with a group of teenagers from Gainesville, all still in high school and looking and sounding it. It would be unfair to apply critical standards to this band that might be applied to a professional group. A main stage performance is important to the development of a young band, unused to handling the extra stress of performing before an audience, no matter how supportive. Sweetwater Special came on stage looking and sounding scared. As their performance progressed they found a groove and looked and sounded increasingly self-assured. Their instrumentals, especially a jazzy version of Blackberry Blossom, were spirited and interesting. Their voices are still too immature to manage the Rhonda Vincent and Cherryholmes covers they chose to perform. These kids will continue to improve and the presence of young, enthusiastic players in bluegrass will assure a continuance of the music.

New Found Road, a national bluegrass-gospel band, followed and opened the real festival with vigor and skill. Lead singer Tim Shelton has a self-assured voice; trios and quartets are strong. An a cappella “Rock of Ages” was a wonderful closing song for their second set. Mandolinist Rob Baker plays an exceptional mandolin filled with fast, complex fingerings. From time-to-time, as he plays, a small smile drifts across Baker’s face, as if he were appreciating something delightful coming from his instrument. He later commented that his new Ratcliff mandolin was just barely broken in and he is enjoying learning what it can offer.

Family bands have been a part of bluegrass music since before the famous Carter family. Bluegrass has traditionally been learned within the family circle as older members passed it on to younger people coming up. The Lewis Family has been touring for more than fifty years. Don Miller showcased two young family bands this weekend, The Wilson Family on Friday and Saturday and River Town Girls on Saturday morning. Furthermore, he contrasted this with a mother daughter band featuring sixteen year old Melissa King with her mother on bass and an established band, the Chapmans, three brothers and their father. These bands provide very interesting contrasts. Rivertown Girls features two teenage sisters and their cousin on banjo. The banjo playing cousin is clearly the most accomplished of the group. The two sisters try hard, but their performance fell short and they failed to sell themselves through enthusiasm or personality. The dominating figure of the father, hovering over each girl during solos seemed almost diabolical. The Wilson family, on the other hand, provided a sharp contrast. Father Robert and mother Melissa provided able support for their two kids, both talented musicians who are clearly on their way in bluegrass if they wish. Sixteen year old Clint is becoming a fine banjo player and offers a droll and persuasive sense of humor. He later played banjo with Ernie Evans and Southern Lite, carrying this assignment ably, too. The star, though, of this group is eleven year old Katie, playing the fiddle and singing with sure strength and in tune as well as providing harmony vocals. A high point was her performance of a novelty song about feeding the family with a five pound raccoon hunted down by the wheels of her car. The other high point of their performance was a song Katie had written called “The Old Man” in which she sings:

His daughter moved to the city,

His only son went off to the war,

He tries not to lie there in self pity,

But he just can’t take it any more.

Katie has written a classic bluegrass lyric which would do James King or any other purveyor of sad, pitiful songs proud.

Mellissa King is a pretty sixteen year old girl from Alabama who will be able to move well in bluegrass or country music. She has a good voice and, backed by her mother’s baritone harmonies and very good sidemen, she showcased her limited repertoire ably. Unfortunately, she performed in three sets over two days, but only had sufficient material for one. As she develops she will remedy this. The Chapmans are a family band that’s been around a while. Three brothers and their father play a pleasing mixture of traditional bluegrass and some jazz and R&B; their encore on Saturday night was Sam Cook’s “You Send Me.” As I listened to this pleasing rendition, I thought that Bill Monroe would have approved the blending of this music into a bluegrass setting. Father Bill on banjo provided a grounding presence while his three sons, young men in their twenties and thirties, explored places to take bluegrass while remaining true to its traditions.

Cadillac Sky is one of those bands that proves controversial at bluegrass festivals. By dint of some inspired schedule juggling they closed both Thursday and Friday nights, as well as having an early afternoon set on Friday. This band plays high energy rocky grass with a Texas twist. Their rendition of Darrell Scott’s “With a Memory Like Mine” rocked and wailed. Much of their work was written by members of the band, a group of excellent musicians seeking to meld a rock sentiment with the instruments of bluegrass, usually with a good deal of success. This is the kind of band seldom seen at Florida bluegrass festivals and not to everyone’s taste. Allowing attendees to have a taste of their music and then scheduling them for a long closing set on Friday made lots of sense. Warmer weather would have made the decision one of genius, but the young and adventuresome were well-rewarded by this showcase group with a growing reputation.

Randy Kohrs provided us with another band we had not previously heard. Kohrs is a master Dobro player with a strong country music strain in his music. He hits the stage hard and plays his instrument hard, wringing stunning arpeggios from the resonator guitar. He is one of the masters of this unusual instrument. His band provides him with strong instrumental and vocal support and his performance was thoroughly satisfying on this day featuring a lot of fine musicians.

Michelle Nixon lost her favorite pillow in Canada a month or two ago and got it back from a Canadian promoter on Saturday night. She is a vivacious singer, so good that no one would notice she hardly plays the guitar she sometimes carries. Her singing belongs in the same circle as Valerie Smith and Alicia Nugent, good company. She has already garnered one IBMA award as a member of the “Daughters of Bluegrass” and will receive more recognition in this group of women who have recently achieved center stage in bluegrass. Once known as a “boys club,” bluegrass is increasingly a venue for singer/songwriter/performers who either front bands or play in them. Some are talented musicians, like Allison Brown, while others are flat out great performers like Allison Kraus, whose fiddle playing was well-recognized in bluegrass before she became an international sensation. The list goes on – Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan, Gina Britt, and others. Michelle Nixon comfortably belongs in this company and gives good value every time she takes the stage. And she easily communicates a wholesome, all-American girl niceness that carries over to the time she spends with her fans.

Sometimes it takes a while to learn to appreciate a band. Two bands at Suwannee fell into this category for me. We had seen Blue Moon Rising a couple of times during the past year, and each time we saw them they had seemed sort of lifeless and unexciting. Nevertheless, when we hear their music on XM radio, we like it. Their hit recording, “This Old Martin Box and Me” by lead singer and guitarist Chris Hill is a very good song, and he has written much of the rest of their material. Irene likes them in person more than I do, but they’re a good band, having been named IBMA emerging artist of the year a couple of years ago. And there’s something to be said for musicianship without an excess of showmanship.

IIIrd Tyme Out is a classic bluegrass band that has been around for quite a while. Recently, founding member Ray Deaton announced he will be leaving the band at the end of this season to join his fiancĂ©e Anita Fisher’s band. But the two other anchors of this band, Russell Moore on guitar and singing lead and Steve Dilling, one of the great banjo players, will find a way to replace Deaton’s booming bass voice and rock solid beat on the bass fiddle. It was at this performance that Dilling and Moore came forward to me as the fine musicians they are. Along with the very active and intense mandolinist Allen Perdue, they will keep this great old band going and continue to find new ways to make it sing while preserving older and more traditional bluegrass. They were joined for a song by Tyler Williams. Painfully crippled by cerebral palsy and blindness, Williams was carried onto the stage by his caretaker and placed in a chair. Then he opened his mouth and sang like an angel. Wonderful renditions of old classic bluegrass songs flow from his crippled frame. He’s a superb, inspiring performer, and we haven’t seen the last of him at Suwannee.

Well designed festivals build to a climax on their last day. Three day festivals ending Saturday can go long into the night, while Sunday festivals usually end in mid-afternoon to enable attendees to be home for work on Monday. Sunday festivals also often have a strong gospel flavor for much of the day. The Spirit of Bluegrass festival ended on Saturday with a couple of highlight bands as well as strong performances from lesser known groups. Peachtree Station opened Saturday morning with a traditional bluegrass performance featuring good, solid playing and singing. They were followed with more of the same from The Williams & Clark Expedition. Blake Williams, whose career includes a long stint with Bill Monroe as one of the Bluegrass Boys, always provides good stage humor along with fine banjo work. Bobby Clark, a former world champion mandolin picker, and Wayne Southard, a first class flat picking guitar player provide solid backup for Kimberly Williams’ singing and bass. Blue Moon Rising and The Chapmans each offered two solid sets to assure that every act on the bill was worth hearing.

Somehow we have missed the two featured bands of Saturday. Kenny and Amanda Smith combine wonderful vocals with Kenny’s superlative guitar picking. There are more guitar players at a bluegrass festival than any other instrument. The guitar often serves primarily as a rhythm instrument in the hands of singers who aren’t first rate pickers. While the importance of rhythm instruments in driving bluegrass sound cannot be overestimated, a band with good banjo and mandolin players and a rock solid bass beat can get along with a weaker guitar. Also, the guitar is not a loud instrument and must be very carefully miked and well-served by the sound people This festival has been blessed with some very good flat picking guitar players, but Kenny Smith stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is simply one of the two or three best flat pickers in the world. His fast and accurate playing compliments Amanda’s vocal range and modulation to lift this group above most others. (One of my highlights occurred backstage where Kenny was jamming informally with seventeen year old Cory Walker, a wizard banjo picker who was playing guitar and staying with Kenny note for note.) Amanda’s voice is silky smooth and always under control. Her well modulated singing seems almost effortless, as powerful when singing quietly as on more raucous tunes. She is at her best in balladic songs. Their band features lots of committed gospel music as well as traditional vocals and instrumentals and their own compositions. Joey Cox, recently added to the band on banjo, is fast and accurate and demonstrates greater range than he did with Blueridge. Jason Robertson on mandolin and Zachary McLamb on bass round out this terrific group. The interaction between Kenny and Amanda, which focuses on their deep devotion and mild good humor works well with the younger, more brazen voices of their sidemen. It all comes together into a delightful performance. Their recordings are wonderful, too.

The highlight of the festival for me was seeing Sammy Shelor and the Lonesome River Band. I knew that Shelor was a wonderful banjo picker, but I had been confused by what appear to be constant changes in the band’s personnel. Not to worry. Shelor’s dynamism and powerful picking assure that they’ll stay excellent, no matter who plays with him. He has a dominating stage presence. He is tall, lithe, and his shaved head gives him an appearance somewhat reminiscent of James Carville. He dwarfs his Huber banjo, not unlike Kenny Ingram. He moves around the stage with unusual grace, almost dancing as he moves into and then away from the mike, giving his playing great dynamic range. Brandon Rickman, lead singer, would have been the best flat picker at Suwannee if Kenny Smith hadn’t been there. During their performances, Rickman broke several strings and managed the feat of continuing to sing lead while changing his strings on the fly. Shelor has not, to my knowledge, had a Dobro in his band before, but Matt Leadbetter carries his name well, adding fast riffs and the colorful support only the Dobro can contribute. Andy Ball on mandolin contributes strong tenor and lead singing. This group, despite years of touring and pretty constant changes in personnel just can’t be beat. They brought Tyler Williams on stage for three numbers, and he only contributed more quality to the mix. Their jam on Molly and the Tennbrooks with Williams singing was a highlight.

This is an ambitious festival that wants to grow. Irby Brown did a competent job as m.c., mixing homespun humor with keeping the event moving along on schedule. Promoter Don Miller took some chances in bringing bands like Cadillac Sky to the festival as well as providing some of the best traditional bluegrass bands in the country. The programming taste he and Ernie Evans show in scheduling and band selection assures that this will continue be a first class festival if it receives the support it deserves. It is aided by being in one of the best locations possible. There is lots of good jamming all around the camping area. The amphitheater at Spirit of Suwannee could handle four or five times the crowd who came for this year’s bluegrass festival. It deserves to be filled.